Hepatitis C, caused by a virus transmitted through blood, can cause liver damage, cirrhosis, and liver cancer.
Liver cancer, or hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC), is extremely dangerous. Liver cancer most often takes the form of tumors, which start very small but can grow larger than a grapefruit. Small tumors can be removed or treated, but larger tumors do not respond well to treatment.
According to the March 2016 National Institutes of Health's (NIH) Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975-2012: "Among both men and women, liver cancer deaths are on the rise in the United States, increasing at the highest rate of all common cancers during the period 2003-2012."
Risks for developing liver cancer include:
- Liver cirrhosis (for any reason)
- Fatty liver
- Excessive alcohol use
- Hepatitis B infection
- Hepatitis C infection
- Family history of liver cancer
The risk for liver cancer increases if you have a combination of the risks above.
According to studies reviewed in the 2012 publication “Epidemiology of Viral Hepatitis and Hepatocellular Carcinoma” there are higher rates of liver cancer in all people with hepatitis C, regardless of the stage of disease. Therefore, it is not a bad idea to get a periodic screening for liver cancer if you have Hep C. Most importantly, according to the American Association of Liver Disease, people who have or have had Hep C and have progressed to cirrhosis should get screened for liver cancer every six months.
What are the liver cancer screening tests?
There are a number of ways medical providers screen for liver cancer. Hepatic Ultrasound is the most sensitive test and is recommended. This test is non-invasive and displays a picture of the liver. Sometimes doctors will run Alpha Fetoprotein (AFP) tests, or request an MRI or CT Scan. However, these tests are not as sensitive or as reliable in detecting liver cancer.
Being tested for liver cancer can be frightening. However, if you find liver cancer early, it can be effectively treated, so it’s worth it. Bring a family member or friend to your test to help you get through it.
Liver cancer can be prevented!
There are a few ways you can lower your risk for liver cancer:
- Avoid alcohol.
- Get treated and cured of hepatitis C.
- Get the full three-dose hepatitis B vaccine series.
- Eat a nutritious diet, exercise and maintain a healthy body weight.
The liver is a resilient organ and much of your liver health is in your own hands. It's important to take steps to reduce your risk of liver disease and cancer by getting all of the recommended evaluations and living a healthy lifestyle.
Hepatitis C Online. University of Washington - Core Concepts. Surveillance for Hepatocellular Carcinoma.
Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer, 1975-2012, Featuring the Increasing Incidence of Liver Cancer. National Institute of Health (NIH).
Epidemiology of Viral Hepatitis and Hepatocellular Carcinoma, Gastroenterology, 2012.
Nirah is a clinical social worker and public health professional who has been raising awareness about hepatitis C and liver health in NYC since 2007. She organizes the Hep Free NYC network in NYC. @HepFreeNYC